CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. —Chattanooga officials spent Thursday outlining an aggressive approach to developing their downtown, the second day of a three-day Visioneering Wichita fact-finding mission.
The Tennessee city's downtown, once riddled with decaying industry and crime, is revitalizing with what Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce president Bryan Derreberry called an "aggressive, cooperative, proactive entrepreneurial approach."
An aggressive downtown revitalization plan is what Old Town developer Dave Burk is looking for.
"It's not consistent with the way Wichita's been developed up to this point," Burk said about the Chattanooga model. "It's been driven basically by the private-sector side in Wichita. We had a plan and the public sector has accomplished most of their points. We could accomplish a lot in Wichita (aggressively) because look what we've already accomplished."
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Chattanooga officials, developers and activists preached aggressive development Thursday: Act quickly, consistently and decisively to craft the downtown economy you want, then keep tweaking the model to make it better.
Those tweaks make up the nuts and bolts of Chattanooga's downtown renaissance, from teaming up to recruit convention business, to the ongoing battle to provide adequate parking for retailers, to nurturing and retaining the community's talent.
Tom Cupo, the general manager of the Chattanoogan urban resort, told the Wichita group he and three other major downtown hotels — the Marriott, Sheraton and Doubletree — have banded together in a unique cooperative effort to recruit convention and corporate business. The city has 7,800 hotel rooms downtown and in the surrounding area, an asset the hotels band together to market.
"We truly work together, and we're always interested in bringing new business to Chattanooga rather than fighting back and forth," he said. "We're interested in making the pie bigger rather than stealing market share."
The city, which owns the Chattanoogan, is a partner in convention recruitment, bonding the resort's construction and then operating the free electric shuttle system downtown to make moving customers easier.
It's not clear, Cupo said, whether the city will remain in the hotel business as downtown's economy grows.
"Some would say the city has no business being in this business," Cupo said. "Some say the city has a vision and a focus for their city and believes in the city. Do I believe the city should be in this business forever? No."
Create Here, a partially hidden storefront on Chattanooga's south side, is a unique blend of arts and business development designed to "retain our talent, our creativity," co-founder Helen Johnson said.
Its goal is to give Chattanooga residents the tools to profit from their creativity, growing the city's talent base and thus its economic foundation.
Create Here doesn't have anything Wichita doesn't: the arts, business education, community activism.
But what it does remarkably, Johnson said, is fight the perception that all those functions need to be "siloed," or segregated as separate community institutions.
"What we do, instead, is encourage people to think across all these disciplines as a platform for community change," Johnson said.
Create Here won't be around forever, Johnson said. She has no interest in perpetuating it as an institution. But she intends for its wide-ranging programs, from artist recruitment to business planning classes, to live on.
Wichitans, take heart: Chattanooga doesn't have enough parking downtown, either.
Jeff Pfitzer, director of special projects for the RiverCity Co., Chattanooga's equivalent to the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., said the city must "develop the perception" among shoppers that there's more than enough parking downtown. That hasn't happened yet, he said.
To pull that off, Pfitzer said the Chattanooga City Council is considering a proposal to centralize the fractured management of downtown's surface parking and garages under one entity. There are too many parking managers and no coherent plan to manage parking traffic.
"As we get into retail recruitment and retention, we need to develop a more comprehensive manner of managing our downtown parking that looks at it as an entire system," Pfitzer said. "On-street is the most critical kind of parking to a retailer because it's the front door of a store."
That on-street parking isn't available enough to shoppers, he said. Thus, part of the parking transition to a single manager must include a plan to keep parkers moving and keep downtown employees out of valuable parking spots near stores, "spots that could be worth $30,000 each to a business if used right," Pfitzer said.
"You talk to our downtown restaurant owners and they'll say their biggest issue is parking, and they'll say it loudly, and they'll say it clearly," he said. "We have to make it easier for people to park downtown, and we have to make sure there's a perception of parking availability. We think that can take place through wayfinding (signage) and getting people familiar with where our parking is."